Unexpected loss leaves hole at WR

PITTSBURGH -- Add wide receiver to the list of positions in which the Pittsburgh Steelers are goalpost-thin following the departure of Jerricho Cotchery.

Cotchery is the second wide receiver that the Steelers have lost via free agency in the last week, leaving the Steelers with Antonio Brown and a pair of players who have a combined 205 snaps of NFL experience between them at the position.

The loss of Cotchery, who agreed to terms with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, may be even more significant than that of Emmanuel Sanders.

Unlike Sanders, who started last season and recently signed a three-year contract with the Broncos, the Steelers anticipated bringing Cotchery back.

And the 10th-year veteran appeared to be the most likely of the Steelers' free agents to re-sign with the team.

Less than three months ago Cotchery talked about how much he loved playing with a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger and playing for a coach like Mike Tomlin.

Heck, Cotchery said the day that the Steelers players cleaned out their lockers in late December that he had so much respect for Tomlin he would mow the seventh-year coach's lawn if asked.

He sounded anything like a player who wasn't coming back.

Does that somehow make Cotchery the heavy for signing elsewhere? Not at all.

The Steelers may have miscalculated with their No. 3 wide receiver, gambling that a wide receiver who turns 32 in June, wouldn't receive much interest on the open market. But the Panthers were raided at wide receiver and desperate for players at the position, leading to Cotchery's return to the state where the North Carolina State product played his college ball.

Given how much Cotchery liked Pittsburgh, you have to think the Panthers offered him significantly more money than the Steelers were willing to pay.

What would really sting for the Steelers is if Cotchery left because he thinks he has a better chance of playing in a Super Bowl with the Panthers, whose franchise quarterback won't practice until the start of training camp because of recent ankle surgery.

Markus Wheaton, Cotchery's protégé, and Derek Moye are now the most experienced wide receivers on the Steelers' roster after Brown. They played 153 snaps and 52 snaps, respectively last season.

They combined for eight catches, 84 yards and a touchdown in 2013.

Does that mean there is gloom and doom at the position? Not at all.

The Steelers can sign Lance Moore -- the former Saints wide receiver visited them on Wednesday – and he may be an upgrade over Cotchery. They also have high hopes for Wheaton and will almost certainly take a wide receiver early in this year's draft.

The loss of Cotchery does leave another hole to fill for a team that is lacking depth at a number of positions, including running back, defensive end and outside linebacker.

But it also means that the Steelers just have to trust their draft -- Wheaton was a third-round pick in 2013 -- and do some more shopping.

They have a history of plugging openings later in free agency.

They have no choice but to do so again this year.